Challenging Performance: The Book. 6.15 Composers are listening

6 Further WCM delusions

6.15 Composers are alive and listening

Steven Isserlis imagines that when musicians arrive in the Next World,

…there the great composers will be, though, waiting for us, scores in hand. ‘You misunderstood this!’ ‘Why did you change that note?’ And so on – a slightly worrying thought.[1]

Assuming, for a moment, that the great composers are there (we are joking?), one must wonder whether after all this time they’re really that interested in us? Haven’t they learned anything, changed their minds, decided it doesn’t much matter now? Have they nothing better to do with eternity than check on us and on what we make of them? Do performers assume that since they are obsessed with the composers’ intentions the composers must be obsessed with theirs? Does this fanciful idea hang over from childhood warnings about God watching our every move, ready to disapprove of anything we do? ‘Remember, HE sees all.’ And incidentally, did God think the composers were right in the first place? Or has He shown them what they should have written and how it should have sounded, and will they show us when our time comes?

I wouldn’t be worrying about this, or joshing with the musings of a fine musician, were it not that this idea of the composer alive and listening is ubiquitous in WCM-speak.

What does Mozart want? First of all, he is concerned… (Heinrich Schenker, 1925) [2]

“Like this, like this, like this,” Bach is saying in the threefold sequence of bars 5–6. (Joseph Kerman, 2005) [3]

I only do what the composer wants (Teodor Currentzis, 2018) [4]

It’s tempting to dismiss this as just a figure of speech, but I don’t think it’s quite that innocent. We use the present tense because we do feel, and believe unless we think about it, that the composer is present in the score, or at any rate in a work that lies behind the score, and that they are made present by us when we play the score as intended. That’s to say, they come back to life and their imagination inhabits ours: they live in us, in our actions as performers and our experiences as listeners. And it’s only a very small step from there to feeling that they are present in a Work, and that one is in dialogue with them as one tries to work out how it can ideally sound. It’s another lovely idea, another happy delusion, but for all that still a delusion. I’m sorry to put it bluntly, but, with the exception of those still alive, the composer is dead and usually has been for a very long time. They’re really not very likely to be listening to us, or minding if we do things differently.

Fulfilled as we may feel by the sense that the composer is present and delighted, and sad as it may seem to let go of that, I do believe that we can still have equal satisfaction from a practice that produces moving results while at the same time keeping a realistic view of what’s actually going on. Just as atheism doesn’t stop us loving our neighbour and helping the traveller or the poor, we don’t need to believe we are remaking the composer in order to feel profoundly moved by what emerges from a performance of their score, even though it may be very unlike anything that’s emerged from it before.

Continue to 6.16 ‘Composers are gods’

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[1] Isserlis, Steven. 2016. Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians, Revisited by Steven Isserlis (London: Faber), 42.

[2] Schenker, Heinrich. 1994. The Masterwork in Music: A Yearbook, I (1925) ed. William Drabkin (Cambridge University Press), 22.

[3] Kerman, Joseph. 2005. The Art of Fugue: Bach’s fugues for keyboard, 1715–1750 (Berkeley: University of California Press), 11.

[4] Teodor Currentzis: Music to Die For. Interview with Thea Derks, 5 May 2018.

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